aqa  Explanations for obedience: agentic state and legitimacy of authority, and situational variables affecting obedience including proximity, location and uniform, as investigated by Milgram. Dispositional explanation for obedience: the Authoritarian Personality.



Milgram’s Shocking Experiment (1963)

An advertisement is placed in a local paper. Participants are paid $4.50 for taking part. The experiment is supposed to be on learning (deception).

Participant introduced to ‘Mr. Wallace’ (a harmless looking accountant in his 50’s, with a dickey ticker).  Mr Wallace was in fact a stooge or confederate.  (More deception). Mr Wallace and the participant draw lots to see who will be teacher and learner.  Mr Wallace always becomes ‘learner’ so will receive the shocks.

Mr. Wallace goes next door. Participant is shown the equipment, and procedure is explained. Mr. Wallace will be asked a series of questions. An incorrect answer will result in an electric shock, delivered by the teacher. The teacher is given a 45V shock to show that the equipment is real. (This is the only shock used in the experiment!!!!!)

The teacher sits in an adjoining room with the experimenter. Control panel has switches, 15V to 450V, (labelled slight shock to Danger severe shock and XXX). Each incorrect answer gets a shock 15V higher than the last. The experimenter encourages the teacher with various instructions.


As the experiment proceeds Mr Wallace is heard to make various noises:

75V, 90V and 105V a little grunt
120V complains about the pain
150V ‘Experimenter get me out of here/’
180V ‘I can’t stand the pain.’
270V An agonised scream
300V He shouts that he will answer no more questions.
315V Violent scream
330V Silence

Remember:  No shocks were ever received!!


Before starting the study Milgram asked a variety of academics and students to predict how many would obey.  Most believed that participants would refuse to give electric shocks and certainly few would go beyond 150V.  They believed a ‘pathological fringe’ (perhaps 1 in a thousand) would go to the full 450V.  In fact all went to 300V (‘danger severe shock’) with 65% giving the full whack!

Variation How it was done % Obedience
Standard procedure Teacher and learner in adjacent rooms 65%
Closer proximity Teacher 1 metre from learner 40%
Touch proximity Teacher has to push learner’s hand onto electrodes 30%
Less prestigious setting Experiment repeated in a run down office 48%
Telephoned orders Experimenter has to leave and phones instructions in. 21%
An ally A stooge disagrees with the experimenter 10%
Less responsibility A stooge gives the shocks when the ‘teacher’ says so.   


Internal Validity: Did the participants taking part in the study actually believe that they were administering electric shocks to Mr Wallace?  Orne & Holland (1968) believe that participants volunteering to take part in psychological studies must realise that the real purpose of the study is going to be disguised.  In this case why would the experimenter stand by and let poor old Mr Wallace cry out in pain without stepping in.  More to the point, why isn’t the experimenter delivering the shocks?  Why pay a volunteer to do the job instead.

Ecological Validity: Can the results of the experiment be generalised to situations outside of the laboratory setting?  Since the person in the white lab coat was an authority figure, then Milgram believes that it does.  After all he was trying to show that we do obey such figures in real life. The next two studies (Bickman and then Hofling) show that obedience as described by Milgram does seem to take place in more natural settings too:

Bickman (1974).  People in the street are asked to pick up a piece of litter or stand on the other side of a bus stop etc.  The person doing the asking is dressed either as a milkman, a civilian or a guard.  People were more likely to obey the guard, showing, presumably, the power of uniform or of perceived legitimate authority. 

Hofling (1966) set up an experiment (natural, field or quasi?), in which a nurse receives instructions over the phone, from a Dr Smith, to administer 20mg of a drug Astroten to a patient Mr. Jones.  This instruction breaches three rules:

  1. The nurse did not know Dr Smith
  2. The nurse did not receive written authority
  3. 20mg was twice the maximum dose suggested on the bottle.

Despite this, 21 out of 22 nurses were prepared to administer the drug.  Since this is a natural setting, it does have ecological validity, and as such is telling us something about obedience in real life.

Ethical Issues

Psychological Harm: Measures were not taken to protect participants from physical or psychological harm

Right to Withdraw: The right to withdraw from the experiment was not made clear to participants. Use of phrases such as ‘You have no choice, you must go on,’ would suggest participants did not have a choice.

Informed Consent & Deception: Although participants gave their consent to take part, this was not informed since they did not know the purpose of the study or what it would entail.  Deception was used.

Debrief: Milgram’s main defence centres on the debrief that all participants received afterwards.  During this participants were reassured about their behaviour: They were assured that no shocks had been given. They were assured that their behaviour was normal.  (Picture the scene, ‘its okay Mr Smith, we all have maniacal, homicidal tendencies and feel the need to electrocute to death mild mannered accountants with dickey tickers!’). They all received a full report of the procedure and findings. They were all sent a questionnaire.

The questionnaire:  A staggeringly high 92% returned the questionnaire. 

  • 84% were glad or very glad that they’d taken part.
  • 74% claimed that they’d learned something of ‘personal importance.’
  • Only 2% were sorry or very sorry that they’d taken part.

Explanations for Obedience

Legitimate Authority

Society gives power or authority to certain people that they are able to exercise over others.  Obvious examples include the police.  Many examples are situation specific, for examples teachers (supposedly) have authority in schools, traffic wardens in parking areas, doctors over their patients etc.  Hofling (1966) is an example of this.  Respect for authority, like this, clearly has its advantages in allowing for the smooth running of a society, and its rules are hammered home in all of us from a very early age.  The danger comes when we blindly obey such figures and as a result behave in an immoral way as a result.  This would help to explain some of the differences found in levels of obedience between different countries.  Some countries such as Australia have a history of questioning authority whereas countries like Germany teach their children from an early age to respect authority.

Agentic Shift

Agency Theory states that we operate on two levels:

1. As autonomous individuals, conscientious and aware of the consequences of our behaviour.
2. As agentic individuals seeing ourselves as the puppets of others and no longer responsible for our actions.

Normally we behave as autonomous, but under certain circumstances we undergo agentic shift and move to the agentic level.  They are then responsible only to the person giving the orders and their responsibility to others disappears.  He believed this explained the behaviour of participants in his own studies, with the experimenter being in charge during the agentic state.

Gradual Commitment

An important feature of Milgram’s procedure was the gradual way in which participants became sucked into giving greater and greater levels of shock. They found it difficult to decide when to disengage from the procedure because each voltage increase was relatively small. This technique is used by sales people the World over and usually referred to as foot in the door.  Get people to make a small commitment, i.e. buy a small item, and then build up to bigger, expensive items.  Once we’ve agreed to a small concession, then in principle it becomes more difficult to refuse a larger one.


Acts to protect person from the consequences of their behaviour.  In Milgram’s study putting the ‘teacher’ and the ‘learner’ in different rooms so there was no eye contact and the consequences were distant.  Dropping bombs from 5 miles up is easier than shooting someone face to face!  The airmen who dropped the first atomic bomb were not told the nature of the mission.  On seeing the mushroom cloud they reported ‘conditions novel.’

Contractual Obligation

Milgram also pointed out that participants felt they had ‘contracted’ to help with the study. By coming along to the laboratory and publicly agreeing to accept the procedures, they saw themselves as helpful people, willing to aid scientific research. If they then were to refuse to continue, they might have to re-evaluate this flattering self-perception.


Extension Resources

Here are some great